A pristine elite California beach town. A successful lawyer who’s given up her career to give birth to her twin boys and to bring them up. Her husband routinely beats her up, following which she has consensual sex with him. She hides her bruises under makeup and her clothes. Another woman is exceedingly envious of her ex-husband’s new, much younger yoga-teacher wife. She is a stay-at-home mom who looks after her children from her current and her previous marriage and seems to love her current husband. But she is also sleeping with the director of the community theatre project which she is involved in raising funds for. Another woman, a single mother, doesn’t tell her son that he was conceived when she was raped. But dreams of finding and murdering her rapist. Another woman is so protective of her daughter, she accuses another child of beating her up—without proof.
None of these women are truly pleasant. And all of them are lying to themselves and others, every day.
There are two other women. Has-been superstar actresses in the Seventies. Rivals. Who, now that they’re past their prime find that no producer or director will touch them with a barge pole and no one will even bother writing about them. So, they find a script for themselves, agree to act together, show the middle finger to the Hollywood pecking order and make a film that will go down in history. As much for them burying the hatchet, as for the fact that two female stars made a blockbuster in their Sixties. They’re horrible mothers (both their daughters wrote tell-all memoirs about their superstar moms), and are willing to use sex to buy affection and favour from studio bosses and their director. And they’re well aware of their foibles and frailties and the need to remain relevant.
The first are the characters from Big Little Lies. The new mini-series starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern and Alexander Skarsgard as the abusive but loving father and husband. The second are the characters of Feud, starring Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford.
What ties both these shows—which are airing currently on Star World Premiere– is that they’re about women who are anything but black or white. They aren’t even particularly likeable women. You veer between pitying them, admiring them very rarely and often being just gob-smacked at their duplicity. They’re women who will do whatever is required to protect themselves and what they consider dear to them. Whether that be their careers, children, marriages or reputations. And both these shows have been produced by the female stars acting in them. Which makes it quite a meta-experience. Especially in the case of Feud, which is about Davis and Crawford having to find their own script and convincing studios to bankroll it. (Stanley Tucci as a sleazy, misogynistic Jack Warner is brilliant.) Sarandon and Lange have produced Feud. A mini-series which allows both of them to be the protagonists. Big Little Lies is executive-produced by Kidman and Witherspoon.
Which is the critical part—not just the characters, but the actors themselves, are women who’ve taken their existence and relevance into their own hands. Which makes both these shows a double treat to watch.
It’s also worth watching both shows for the many questions they raise and observations they make. How women live out their lives and fears through their children—often projecting on them. The obsession parents have with needing to be loved by the very children they may be mistreating. The fear of not ever letting yourself be vulnerable, letting your façade down or being lonely. How just because someone is your closest friend, it doesn’t mean you know what’s really going on in their life. How great sex can make you overlook or accept even something as horrendous as domestic violence. And how you’re not a pushover just because your husband manages to rough you up. Feud reminds you of how nothing has really changed in the lives and career graphs of women actors. How they’re still manipulated and need to manipulate the male players in the film industry in order to steady their foothold under the arc lights. Where Big Little Lies is slightly warmer is that the women are strong on loyalty to each other, willing to go to almost any length to protect their friends. Even in Feud, you do see Crawford and Davis put aside their differences to come together as stars to contend with.
It’s so heartening to see women steering these storylines and mini-series, unafraid to play characters which are far from attractive or even palatable. And I think that is what makes both shows so watchable. That these are actors known for the mastery of their craft, willing to experiment with roles which frankly make them look like manipulative, fragile people who are losing control over their lives.
Yes, we have an Anushka Sharma willing to play an avenging murderous woman in the film she produced, NH10. But that’s the only mainline commercial film (which was made in 2015) where one of our Bollywood stars created a film and took on a character most others wouldn’t have gone near. Maybe Big Little Lies and Feud will lead the way. But whether or not they do, watch both the series to see women actors at their best and women characters which are so real, you keep watching their actions play out as you would a car accident. Both shows are riveting, brutal and worth every minute of your time.
Bette Davis’s character sums up the theme of both shows perfectly when she says, “Lying is what we do for a living, kid”.
Feud is aired every Sunday on Star World Premiere at 9pm.
Big Little Lies is aired every Tuesday on Star World Premiere at 10pm, and is also available on Hotstar.